All About History
Gary Oldman gives blood, toil, tears and sweat to show another side to the WWII PM
Certificate PG Director Joe Wright Cast Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane Released Out now
At the time of writing, Dunkirk and Darkest Hour are both competing for the Best Picture Oscar. Both films are set in 1940, with German forces poised to invade Britain — but Darkest Hour is the polar opposite of Christopher Nolan’s return to form. The latter was packed with jaw-dropping panoramas and spectacular action sequences but little dialogue. Joe Wright’s latest is a political thriller, set in the shadowy halls of power, where the drama is limited to a war of words.
The enemies here are not so much Hitler and Mussolini as they are ousted leader Neville Chamberlain and his ally Viscount Halifax, who both believe making peace with the Nazis is the best thing for Britain and scheme to undermine Churchill’s premiership.
Wearing heavy make-up, Gary Oldman physically resembles neither himself nor Winston Churchill but the Dracula star is no stranger to prosthetics. He goes beyond mimicking the prime minister’s characteristically odd cadence, theatrical grandstanding and cigar sucking to get to the heart of the man buried beneath the fat suit. However, his Churchill is perhaps not the swaggering patriarch we’ve come to expect: he’s an alcoholic, prone to self-doubt and depression, haunted by the spectre of Gallipoli. While he boldly demands “victory at all costs”, in private he questions if it’s really the right thing.
The pedant in us wishes that the film’s most important scene — in which Churchill steels himself after a dark night of the soul — wasn’t a complete fabrication. In it, Churchill leaves the Westminster Bubble and takes a trip on the London Underground, where he encounters a carriage full of defiant Brits that refuse to surrender to Hitler. Never have Tube passengers been so chatty, and nor has a single stop on the District line ever taken so long.
We would have preferred to know how the British Bulldog actually found the inner fortitude to lead the nation to this melodramatic mush, but it’s at least refreshing for a biopic to abandon the antiquated ‘great man’ theory of history. Instead, Darkest Hour acknowledges that the war was a collective effort won through more than the decisions of a titled, white, male elite.
It’s a shame, then, that the other characters are so one-dimensional. Stephen Dillane’s Halifax makes for a suitably villainous aristocratic foil, but his motives — for refusing the premiership and appeasement — are never probed. Kristin Scott Thomas’ Clementine Churchill is regal and witty but only serves to provide her husband with a shoulder to cry on. Lily James’ young typist offers little more than a sounding board for Churchill’s monologues.
Whether it’s Oldman’s scene stealing or a shortcoming of the writing, the rest of the cast are not given enough limelight to round-out their performances. The exception is Ben Mendelsohn’s George VI, who sparks off Oldman wonderfully as the calm and considered king who develops a grudging respect for the boorish PM.
An electrifying performance from Oldman steals the show, pulling focus from both his co-stars and a surprisingly subversive
World War II story.
“[Oldman] get[s] to the heart of the man buried beneath the fat suit”